Development or diplomacy? The rebranding of the Australia Awards

Development or diplomacy? The rebranding of the Australia Awards

The Australian government’s primary intentions for its awards program for developing countries in the region may be at variance with its stated objectives, writes Anna Kent

The Australian government has been offering scholarships to students from developing countries in our region since around the middle of last century.

The scholarships became the start of what is now an enormous international education industry. Despite now being much outnumbered by privately funded students, scholarship students studying in Australian higher education and vocational institutions are still sponsored by the Department of Defence, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Department of Education. From Indonesia alone, more than 18,000 students have been sponsored by the Australian government to study in Australia.

My research would suggest that rather than being able to attribute economic prosperity and development to the scholarships, one of the most significant outcomes of these scholarship programs is the cultivating of a cohort of Australian-trained senior bureaucrats, academics and politicians across the region. This is, the theory goes, advantageous to Australia’s political, business and military interests.

The scholarships do have other purposes, and in the past have been promoted as a development program above all other aspects. The rebranding of the main scholarship program from Australian Development Scholarships to Australia Awards under Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was perhaps not intended as a deliberate move away from the development aspect of the scholarship program. However, changes to the broad mission statement of the now defunct AusAID and the placement of the concept of ‘promoting prosperity’ at the top of Australia’s aid mission statement give the impression of a more fundamental change to the expectations around the scholarships.

While these scholarship programs certainly lead to social and economic change and growth in the ‘recipient’ countries, they are now primarily a diplomatic activity. A multifaceted, layered, diplomatic program nonetheless. There is the bargaining chip role that scholarships can play in a bilateral negotiation. There are the high levels of training and education provided to carefully selected ‘agents of change’ who will return to their home country and work to improve political stability and economic capacity (things that are most certainly in Australia’s national interest). And finally, there is the element of ambassadorship—alumni who return home to their country with a positive view of Australia and influence others to embrace Australia, as a holiday destination, source of potential research or business partners, investment prospect and more.

There are a number of elements of the policy and administration of the scholarship programs that I posit significantly impact on the outcomes and impact of the scholarship.

Priority areas

Many of the more recent changes to the Australia Awards fit well into the dominant narrative of ‘economic development’ that pervades the aid-funding allocations from recent Australian governments. They are also reflected in the types of students who are coming to Australia—selected to study in ‘priority areas of study’ that include extractive industries and corporate governance.

The politics of these selections is difficult for the Australia Awards to influence and can lead to referencing certain candidates over other more meritorious candidates

Priority areas of study are not a new element of the scholarship program and are common across international scholarships around the world. The Australia Awards areas of study are chosen in partnership with the partner governments of the recipient countries and often reflect human-capacity development needs in that country. For example, Mongolia’s priority areas of study include engineering, mining and construction, in part to support its large mining industry. And priority areas in Sri Lanka include tourism and psychology, again reflecting the needs of the country’s society and industry.


The selection of priority areas of study, and other selection decisions have significant impacts on the types of candidates who apply for the scholarships, and those who are successful. These students will return as alumni to take their place in the economy, politics and society of their homeland. And from them, the Australian government hopes and works to continue the influence that has begun through their immersion in Australia.

However, decisions about those students who are awarded scholarships do not occur in a vacuum, and in some cases are heavily influenced by the organisation that candidates work for. In the Australia Awards Indonesia program a significant number of awards are reserved for those in so called ‘targeted organisations’, which include a few central government agencies. The politics of these selections is difficult for the Australia Awards to influence and can lead to referencing certain candidates over other more meritorious candidates.

Short courses

Another significant change to the Australia Awards program has been a reduction in the number of awards given. This has, in part, been caused by significant cuts to the aid budget, which has been cut in real terms every year since 2012.

A further reason for the reduction of long-term awards (those for Masters and PhD study) has been the diversion of funds to short-course awards. This is the case for many of the Australia Awards programs. The shift to short-course funding is problematic for many reasons, not least because research suggests that longer-term study in Australia has a greater impact on the lives of the alumni involved.

What the shift does provide for is a greater number of people who interact with Australia via the Australia Awards. This is either through participating in short courses in their own country, taught by Australian institutions, or travelling to Australia to undertake a short course. The impact of these courses will be measured, but it is yet to be seen if the volume of Australia Awards (via short courses) can match the impact of longer-term awards.

All of these policy and administrative decisions, and the hundreds of others that make up the Australia Award programs influence the outcomes of the scholarship program. But the real rather than anecdotal impacts of the program are being more systematically measured and documented, especially via the new DFAT Global Tracer Facility, which will provide a more ‘global’ view of the outcomes of the awards in addition to the evaluation conducted by each individual award program. But this tool and facility is new, and will only be able to measure within the framework provided. It is thus prudent to remain cautious about its potential.

Nevertheless, as international education and student mobility are recognised for their role in Australia’s diplomatic program further research can only be of benefit to alumni and future awardees, Australians and those within our region who aspire to education.

Featured image
About 200 recently returned Australia Awards recipients, Australian and Indonesian government representatives, along with Australian university representatives and staff from the Indonesia Australia Language Foundation gathered for a fun Australia Awards alumni event in 2014. Image: courtesy of DFAT

Anna Kent is a PhD student at Deakin University in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, researching the history of Australian government education aid to the Pacific.

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